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How to Fail Well: Lessons on Success from the Winter Olympics

The closing ceremony has ended the PyeongChang Olympics, but the accomplishments of the athletes who competed live on. The athletes of the XXIII Olympic Winter Games amazed and inspired us. These athletes achieved amazing feats. They also failed—often. Failure is not just a fact, but a skill. You can either be defeated or propelled by your failures. Here are three lessons on failure we took away from PyeongChang.

1. Persistence pays off. Kikkan Randall was competing at her fifth Olympics in an event that no United States woman had ever medaled in: cross-country skiing. Not only did she and her teammate, Jessie Diggins, earn a medal, they won gold. Diggins edged Sweden out by .19 seconds in a nail-biting finish as she dug deep and made it across the finish line. Although Randall had gone home without a medal four times before, she still brought her all to the Olympics and now she’s bringing home gold.

2. Failure isn’t the last word. U.S. figure skater Nathan Chen was one of the top contenders coming into the games, with many predicting gold. In his short program, however, he fell and faltered the whole way through, landing him in 17th place. A world-class athlete, Chen knew failure doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish something great. When he came to his free skate, he decided to attempt something he’d been working towards in practice, though hadn’t yet achieved: landing 6 quadruple-jumps in his freeskate. Chen resolutely landed all of them and made Olympic history in the process.

3. Fail graciously. In team speed skating, teams of three compete together and don’t finish until their final member crosses the finish line. It’s not uncommon to see athletes giving slower teammates a literal push to help them stay together and competitive. In the 500M quarterfinals, the South Korean women weren’t doing well. Two of the athletes chose to leave their slower teammate, Noh Seon-yeong, behind. She finished 4 seconds behind them—an eternity in this lighting sport. Noh burst into tears afterwards and her teammates left without a word to her. Their poor sportsmanship prompted an online petition to have them removed from the team. Over half-a-million people signed the petition. People are watching when you fail. Behave with humility and kindness.

Failure is the forerunner of success. Rather than fearing failure, we should embrace its lessons and capitalize on its momentum. As Winston Churchill reminds us, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”